When the high point of your week is being drenched with a bucketful of water, it’s a sure sign that you should have stayed where you belong, in the picnic hamper with Andy, Teddy and Looby Loo. In fairness, Alistair Darling did gain some Brownie points by facing his soaking with wry humour, appearing never to flinch.
Yes-supporting conspiracy theorists scoffed that his flunkies hadn’t put any ice in the bucket, opting instead for room-temperature mineral water with a hint of peach from Waitrose Morningside. Better Together propagandists crowed that their man had simply rediscovered the steely stoicism he’d displayed in 2008, when Fred Goodwin was twisting his arm behind his back and Gordon was in the other room chewing the carpet.
Of course, as any body language expert will confirm once he’s stopped creepily staring at you, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between stoicism and paralysis. The terrified chancellor had ended up giving Fred the Shred everything he wanted, instead of chucking him unceremoniously in the clink, as would have happened in Reykjavik. Now, as the cascade sent his eyebrows careering in all directions, Darling may simply have been rigid with fear over the myriad risks and uncertainties he faced, including drowning, pneumonia, water on the brain and the hidden agonies of shrinkage in the woolly undies department.
Alex Salmond rose up from his own icy inundation with a roar of mingled discomfort and defiance, indicating his state of mind approaching this week’s second televised smackdown. The First Minister revels in being underestimated, especially when luring a complacent opponent in front of a UK-wide TV audience for a comprehensive gubbing. Seasoned Salmond-watchers even entertained the possibility that his peely-wally performance in the first debate had been part of a fiendish master plan. When it comes to being a hustler, this bloke makes Fast Eddie Felson look like Laa-Laa of the Teletubbies.
Darling, awarded the first debate despite floating like a bee and stinging like a butterfly, urgently needed to put on his dancing pumps and learn some scintillating new moves. Sadly, this would have involved coming up with his own Plan B, thereby melting his cerebellum, so he had to settle for the usual cement-filled clown shoes. While Salmond was channelling Bill Clinton by going walkabout, Darling remained rooted to his lectern, palpably beelin’, with only his manic finger-pointing hinting at the 70s disco-dancing career that might have been.
The audience reaction to Darling’s third mention of currency, a disappointed gasp such as you’d emit if repeatedly dive-bombed by a pigeon, was the beginning of the end. His admission that of course Scotland could use the pound, exultantly highlighted by Salmond before he could add “but it and all other currency options will be crap, and we’ll have to eat worms”, was game over. Salmond’s offer to include Darling in his “Team Scotland” negotiating party, as if they’ll be needing a stroppy doom-mongering berk, was merely the knife-twisting coup de grâce.
So complete was the carnage that the BBC, surveying the ashen Darling clutching his lectern at the end with his trousers round his ankles, were moved to declare that the debate “had been more evenly matched” than its predecessor. They must think English viewers are even denser than the Scots. But never mind, the evening had given us so many memories and talking points.
- Salmond asking Darling to name three job-creating powers to be granted by Westminster after a No vote, then two, then one, while Darling frantically ransacked his brains like a man trying to find his passport in a rubbish tip.
- Darling scoffing that he wouldn’t spend six minutes in Panama, news that will probably suit the Panamanian authorities just fine. Grateful thanks to Gordon Brown for not being daft enough to reshuffle this man to Foreign Secretary, otherwise the UK would by now be a gently sizzling post-nuclear wasteland.
- The audience. The polar opposite of the STV audience three weeks previously. Especially the woman who laid into Darling for hypocrisy over NHS privatisation and his fancy dinners with well-upholstered profiteers, signing off with the belter, “I hope you can feel Aneurin Bevan sitting on your shoulder”. Ka-pow! Better Together, swiftly mobilising their green crayons, have fired off a complaint to the BBC, affording the rest of us a rare opportunity to bask in the blissful glow of schadenfreude.
- “Why are we not better together now?” Nailed it.
- Sneaky Salmond digs such as “You don’t have to point, Alistair” and “Stay calm”, amongst the most annoying things anyone can say to you when you’re teetering on the verge of a toy-throwing outburst. The First Minister is undoubtedly a sadistic bastard. But at least he’s our sadistic bastard.
- The cross-examination sessions. Why not just give the debaters a break and fire up a couple of chainsaws? It would be more informative. From the sidelines, a frustrated Glenn Campbell tried to introduce a bit of order, but for all he could achieve the BBC might as well have placed him in Dunoon.
- Darling self-destructing over how many Scots children are currently projected to be in poverty by 2020. You might have forgiven him not knowing that the answer was 100,000, except for the fact that Salmond had quoted it 20 minutes earlier. However, he also contrived to make it look like he wasn’t that bothered. Of course, Labour could always fix the problem by adjusting the definition of poverty.
- “We don’t have to rise up and be a nation again, just believe in ourselves.” Great peroration from Salmond. A bit over the top, you reckon? Remember that the most inspiring soundbite to come out of the No campaign this week was “Shut up and eat your cereal.”
Darling’s punishment for the debacle was savage, as Wednesday saw him subjected to a reunion with his old boss Gordon Brown, whose leadership his self-serving, but in this case possibly accurate, memoirs had labelled “hopeless” and “a brutal regime” after the electorate had finally had a bellyful of them both. It was fun watching them sit awkwardly side by side, trying to crowbar their faces into smiles, ignoring the ever-present reality that Gordon, if provoked, could crush Alistair like a grape.
Best, probably, for Alistair to sit very, very still indeed. And just hope that no-one tried to chuck an egg at Gordon.